The Life of Françoise Sagan Reads Like a Novel

The Life of Françoise Sagan Reads Like a Novel
In her lifetime, Françoise Sagan (real name: Françoise Quoirez) published more than 50 works, including plays, short stories and biographies. But none was as successful as her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, written at the tender age of 17. A mere 30,000 words, Bonjour Tristesse was published in 1954 and was literally an overnight sensation, catapulting Sagan into a notoriety that lasted until the day she died.  The book was considered scandalous and amoral, doubly so for having been written by one so young. It covers the events of one summer on the French Riviera that the heroine, Cécile, spends with her philandering father and his mistress. Cécile is discovering her own sexuality while plotting to disrupt her father’s licentious love life for her own purposes. It is a sophisticated novel for a 17-year-old, and took a short three months to complete. Sagan dropped it off at a publisher, René Julliard, in the Rue de l’Université. Beneath her name and the title of the novel, Sagan astutely typed her date of birth: 21 June 1935. It took but a few days before the telegram arrived and a contract offered. (It was reported that Sagan immediately blew the advance on whiskey and a black sweater. A foretaste of things to come.)  Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan. Photo: Mike K/Flickr The immediacy of Sagan’s success was astonishing by any standard. Within a month of the publication of Bonjour Tristesse, Sagan was lauded by Paris Match as an “18-year-old Colette,” and commended by the reigning Nobel Laureate, François Mauriac for its “explosive literary merit.” This undiluted praise proved too much for the chief literary critic of Le Monde, Émile Henriot, who rejected the book as “immoral.” This dismissal was hardly surprising in a predominantly Catholic country as France, where as much outrage as admiration was expressed at the sexual themes of the novel written by a teenager.  Sagan had a much more succinct take regarding her book. “I dreamt of being a writer once I started to read. I started to write Bonjour Tristesse in bistros around the Sorbonne. I finished it. I sent it to editors. It was accepted.”  The bistros and jazz clubs in the Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain-des-Prés had proved irresistible to Sagan since she was 15 years old. She was no stranger to either tobacco or alcohol. Jazz, cigarettes, and alcohol remained a constant throughout Sagan’s life, despite (or because of) her traditional bourgeois upbringing. Sagan was, and remained, a rebel.  Her father was a company director and her mother was the daughter of landowners. Born in the countryside in Cajarc in Lot in 1935, Sagan’s love of animals stayed with her all her life. After the war, her family moved to the prosperous 17th arrondissement of Paris.  Her first school in Paris, a convent, was uniquely unsuited to the young Sagan – she was expelled for her “lack of deep spirituality.” She fared little better in the Louise-de-Bettignies school, expelled once more, this time for hanging a bust of Molière with a piece of string. Sagan wearied of formal education, only obtaining her baccalaureat at the second attempt. The success of Bonjour Tristesse, and her new life in St Germain, lessened even more her interest in studies and she did not graduate from the Sorbonne. 

Lead photo credit : French writer Françoise Sagan boarding a ferry during the honeymoon after her marriage with Robert Westhoff. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

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After some dreary years in the Civil Service, Marilyn realized her dream of living in Paris. She arrived in Paris in December 1967 and left in July 1969. From there she lived in Mallorca, London, Oman, and Dubai, where she moved with her husband and young son and worked for Gulf News, Khaleej Times and freelanced for Emirates Woman magazine. During this time she was also a ground stewardess for Middle East Airlines. For the past 18 years they've lived on the Isle of Wight.